Saturday, July 08, 2006

Durbin Creek: A Kayaker's Dream

Durbin Creek is a beautiful kayak/canoe spot that is conveniently located near my house. It is a part of the Bartram Canoe Trail, where the environmentalist William Bartram traveled and discovered new species, one of which I write about below. I wrote this entry the day after I got back and posted it on a kayaking website, and I have decided to share it with you.

Sunday, March 19th, 2006

Historic bridge, portaging, two close encounters with water moccasins, Great Blue Heron, Ibis, Bartram's Ixia, 12-15 Foot Alligator, Naked girl

One of my favorite places in the world is Durbin Creek, a tributary of the St. Johns River that runs through St. Johns and Duval Counties in northeast Florida. It originates in a swamp just east of US 1 in Duval County and wanders for around 20 miles through fairly old-growth cypress forest. It is a blackwater creek filled with many fallen logs and snags for about the first half of its course. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful and interesting paddles in northeast Florida, and I highly recommend it to any moderately experienced kayaker or canoer. I say moderately experienced because some of the snags can be a little tricky to navigate around, and, as you are about to see, nearly impossible in low water.
When my dad and I decided to make a trip down Durbin Creek this weekend, we were a little worred about the low water level. We have not had a significant rain in over two weeks, and as a result, we feared that the water level would be too low for easy passage. Nevertheless we decided to take the full trip from Racetrack Road to Clark's Fish Camp (Hood Landing boat ramp), and hoped to get some lunch at Clark's after a long day of paddling. When we arrived at the launch (the north side of Racetrack Road, NOT ACCESSIBLE TO MOTOR BOATS), our fears were confirmed. The water level was so low that what is usually a two-foot deep swamp was completely dry, and there were numerous exposed snags that we had never seen before. The low water also provided a rare look at a piece of old Florida history: As we scouted out the ramp and checked the water level, we saw posts in a straight line sticking about a foot out of the water, and some wood planking leading up to it near the bank. It did not lake us long to realize that those posts and the planks were the remnants of the old bridge that used to cross the creek way back when the road was a simple wagon trail. Being history buffs, we marveled at the site for a moment, but quickly got back to business, as we were on somewhat of a time constraint. We got all of our gear loaded and tied down and set off from the muddy bank at around 11:45 AM. It did not take long (about 5 minutes) before we reached our first obstacle. A log, halfway submerged completely blocked our path from bank to bank. We had some reservations about getting out of the kayak and stepping onto the slippery log, risking an undesirable swim in the creek. So we looked around and did something that you can NEVER do on Durbin Creek (due to the fact that it's usually completely flanked by swamp): PORTAGE! We pulled the kayak out, weaved it though some trees, slipped in some mud, and put back in 100 yards downstream, beyond the fallen log. Right then I knew that this would be a looong trip. For the next mile, there were uncountable snags that we really had to work to get over...fortunately, our kayak has a very shallow draft and we can get over logs only a couple inches below the water.
There is this cypress tree on Durbin Creek (well, actually there's thousands on the creek, but I'm only speaking of one in particular). A tree that my father and I have estimated to be somewhere along the lines of 2,000 years old (by comparing to other trees that we know the diameter and age of) and 9 feet in diameter. This tree is HUGE...Bigger than most people have seen or ever will see in their entire life. I have been wanting to get my picture taken in front of this tree for months, but it has constantly been eluding me for one reason after the next. I thought that today would be the perfect day to do it because the water level is so low, and I can get out and stand in front of it for the sake of perspective (you ought to see how this thing dwarfs me). As we got within about ten feet of it, I was preparing to get out when I saw a commotion right where I was about to step out. I saw a long, black, tubular body. We made eye contact. "Water moccasin! Go back!" I yelled to my dad, and we both quickly paddled backward. I'm not too worried about alligators and bears and panthers...but I don't go near a poisonous snake. Needless to say, I decided that maybe today wasn't the day to get my picture taken with the tree (grin). After that experience, I sweared I would be more careful about watching out for snakes on this creek.....10 minutes later.....As we ducked under yet another log against the left bank of the creek, I turned around to push back and drown some spider brush that was menacingly close to my arachniphobic self. (Spider brush is a term that I have given to branches and twigs that grow over the water in our path. When you run into them, five or six spiders, some quite large, jump onto you and into the boat...never fails) As I turned, I saw it. Another tubular body curled up in the tree that we had just ducked under. We were well within striking range. "Oh crap, dad. Look. Rattler." I sat there (stupidly withing strinking range) for a moment, secondthinking my classification of the snake. "That's a moccasin, paddle us out!" my dad said...I agreed. Now that it is spring it is very important that I, and all other paddlers, be sure to check very carefully when your are walking on the bank or moving around logs, to be sure you don't get that potentially fatal bite that we all dread.
As we moved farther down the creek, we began to see palm trees, palmettos, and more grasses back where the swamp usually stands. I also began to notice blue-purple flowers set farther back in the woods...As a I got a closer look, I realized what it was: BARTRAM'S IXIA! Bartram's Ixia is an endangered flower that only grows in localized areas in northeast Florida, and fortunately for me, one of those areas is Durbin Creek. I'm surprised to see them blooming so early in the Spring, but I am sure that's what they were. I was very excited to finally see this rare flower in the wild.
A few miles down the creek, high voltage power lines cross over in a straight line, forming a wide, wet, grassy area; prime territory for 'gators. The last trip we made, we had seen what my dad estimated to be a 15-foot gator here. As we came up on the power lines, we were as quiet as possible, and sure enough, there we was. He sat, like a mammoth, on the left side of the creek, right at the edge of the grass. Our kayak is 13 feet long...he is longer than it. He turned around and stared at us. We stared back at his monstrously huge head. As we approached, he quietly slipped into the water. "I've never been so nervous on this creek before," I said with a chatter. "Well maybe it's because of the 15-foot alligator that you're on top of right now," my dad responded wryly. If you ever make this trip...You will round a left bend and you will see the clearing and the lines crossing the river. Be really quiet, move slowly, and look at the left bank. He'll be laying there sunning himself, 90% guaranteed.
Continuing farther down the creek, it begins to widen considerably and you start to see the first sign of civilization in the form of docks and boats more expensive than my house. As we rounded a corner, we saw a very large boat filled with around 10 teenagers, one quite entertaining (grin). I glanced to the side and quickly turned away. My dad sneezed. She turned around. "Oh my gosh, I am so sorry," she said climbing back into the boat." For some strange reason, she was climbing around the outside on the side of the the buff. Not quite sure what the idea was there, but one of her friends summed it up quite well, "KODAK MOMENT!" (grin).
After passing them, there really is not much to speak of in this creek. We paddled for about another 1-2 miles and turned into Julington Creek, where we took out about 1/4 mile upsteam on that creek. After putting away all of our gear, we went into Clark's Fish Camp and had ourselves a good lunch of Fried Shrimp, Green Beans, and Grits, while overlooking the creek. I meant to give the manager hell about the $0.25 alligator feed vending machine he had set up out front (angers me very much that they encourage alligator feeding), but I was in a hurry to get to a church meeting, so I didn't...but I'll be back Clark...I'll be back (evil grin)
For those of you who want to make this trip, I would highly recommend that you take it in higher water, when most of the snags are submerged. But if you like a challenge, Durbin Creek at low water certainly is the place to be, and it doesn't get much more beautiful either. HAPPY PADDLING!

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At the beginning part of the paddle, the water is dark brown, stained by tannin from the abundant trees. There are a lot of snags like you see on the left and a lot of submerged logs that can be some trouble. At these upper portions of the creek, you will see a lot of otters, birds, racoons, and a few gators...If you are quiet. Also, don't touch any of the branches or snags if you don't like spiders.
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There are many little branches (the body of water, not the part of the tree) that extend back into the swamp surrounding, but be careful if you decide to explore one, for it is easy to get turned around in the broad expanse of trees. I wouldn't recommend anybody do this unless they are an experienced navigator or have a GPS. Here, we are coming out of one that we named "The Loop," as it loops around in the swamp and comes back into the creek about a quarter mile later. (Yes, that is a part of my back on the left...The first photo of me you have seen :-D)
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Water Hyacinths are one of the few problems that plague Durbin Creek and almost every other creek or river in Florida. I once heard that the non-native species was brought to America by a woman who thought they would look good in her private pond. They quickly took it over and grew all across the surface. Frutrated, she pulled them out and threw them into the St. Johns River, where they spread like wildfire. It is a more likely scenario, though, that they came along on a shipment into one of Florida's ports...Quite possibly JAXPORT in Jacksonville. No matter how they got here, they clog up parts of many creeks, rivers and backwaters as you can see here, and sometimes completely halt boat traffic. Fortunately, many of the larger bodies of water are under "maintenance" that controls their growth.
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As you continue further downstream, the water opens up a little bit, and the paddle becomes easier, as you will no longer have to compete with snags. Your last snag at average water level should be soon after the power lines. This, in my opinion, begins the most beautiful part of the creek.

As Durbin Creek continues, it later joins Julington Creek, which then joins into the St. Johns River as one of its largest tributaries. At its latter portions, it opens up wider than a 100 yards and is dotten with houses...sickening in my opinion. But nothing can be taken from the upper portions of this mysterious and beautiful creek.



Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon your story about your kayak trip. Wow! My 15 year old son and I just came back from our 3 hour adventure today. We started from a dock on Durbin Creek and made it past the power line crossing. How much further is it to the bridge at Race Track Rd.? Thank you.

MinorcanMeteorolgist said...

Hi, John!
I have no idea when you commented, but I just saw it now :-)
The Race Track Road bridge is about two more miles upstream from the power lines. That two miles is pretty tough paddling for the most part, though, unless somebody has come through with a chainsaw recently...Lot of deadfall.
It's an amazing trip, though!